by Kabir Nagpal; Interview conducted by Simon Daish
Having started this year with a bang at the ITTF 2020 Qatar Open in Doha, Liam Pitchford was probably one of the most in-form athletes when the world went under lock and key for the better half of past nine months.
Heading to the Qatari capital in March 2020 as the no.15 seed in the men’s singles draw, Pitchford defied all the odds to make it to the final where he was eventually beaten by China’s Fan Zhendong (11-9, 11-7, 8-11, 11-4, 6-11, 11-7).
Now, with international table tennis finally returning in the shape of the upcoming Dishang 2020 Men’s World Cup and ITTF Finals, Pitchford was not afraid to hide his excitement only about the tournaments, but also the return to full time preparations.
“I’m looking forward to it and it will be interesting playing the first tournament for a long time. I’ve started work with a new fitness coach and it’s been going really well and supports the work on the table with Gavin (coach Gavin Evans). I’ve tried to add a bit of weight to my frame, which has been tough but I’ve managed it. I’m feeling stronger and hopefully, I’m hitting the ball a bit harder and moving quicker. I’m going in in really good shape, but not playing a competitive match for so long means you can’t say where you are. But I’m really pleased with the work I’ve been doing.” Liam Pitchford
The ‘Surprise element’
Pitchford’s work in training speaks mostly towards catching his competition off guard. The English international has previously enjoyed ‘upsets’ against the likes of Vladimir Samsonov and Xu Xin.
It was with that thought in mind the question arose about the #RESTART of table tennis internationally being an opportunity to potentially see even more upsets due to the disruption in schedule:
“The European players have played some league matches now and the Chinese have had their national championships but I’ve not played any league matches so nobody has been able to study me, plus they don’t know what I’ve been doing in the gym. I’m hoping I’ve got that surprise element.”
Therein lies the biggest x-factor for Pitchford going into the Dishang Men’s World Cup and ITTF Finals next month. In the former, it is set to be his second appearance at the tournament, having previously featured in the 2012 event when he competed as a wild card entry. Facing a daunting group of aforementioned Samsonov and Xu, it also comprised of Portugal’s Marcos Freitas.
At 19 years of age, Pitchford made a good account of himself but was unable to qualify from the group stages. Naturally, he has much higher expectations from himself this time around.
“It’s quite a while ago and I can’t remember too much about it, to be honest. At the time, it was special for me to get a wildcard. I was pretty young and not at the level I’m at now, so it was a different level of expectation going in, whereas now I’m up there and have proved myself able to beat the best players in the world. I’m going into it positive and looking to go as far as I can.”
A high level of motivation, it is the same for the ITTF Finals in Zhengzhou, Pitchford’s first-ever participation in the grand competition. Another great milestone in his career, Pitchford spoke about re-imagining some of his early 2020 form from Qatar in the Chinese city in less than three weeks.
“It’s one of the biggest events in the world and this time it’s going to be the best 16 ranked players in the world, so obviously every match you play is going to be incredibly hard. I take a lot of confidence from Qatar – even though it’s been about seven or eight months it’s still fresh in my mind as the last and best tournament I’ve played. I’m hoping to find that form again and then, who knows? If I play like that, I’m not afraid of anyone.”
Finally, the competition – despite its long delay this year – is still set to be fierce and some of the biggest names in the sport will line up to fight for the trophy. Liam Pitchford is one of those names. He is certain that he is prepared for any challenges that come his way.
“Obviously, you’ve got all the best players in the world, so they’re all very good players but I think you can’t look past Fan Zhendong. I watched his games at the Chinese National Championships and he’s looking sharp. When I played him in (the final in) Qatar, there were a few chances I didn’t take which could have changed the match but it’s going to be good with all the top players there and you can’t write anybody off. May the best man win!”
Are you also prepared to follow Liam Pitchford’s journey at #RESTART?!